By  on May 2, 2008

NEW YORK — Superheroes often operate in sinister worlds, but they can be oh-so-much fun to watch.

“Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” which officially opens its doors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute next Wednesday, offers a look at how fashion has interpreted superhero iconography both literally and metaphorically, and an almost comic-worthy show layout peppered with real action figures that could appeal to a democratic range of museum visitors.

Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute, who put the exhibit together with the support of curator in charge Harold Koda, said the theme for the exhibit evolved from his initial, more literal approach five years ago. He was inspired to take the different route after reading Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which gave a metaphorical slant to the theme. Chabon has contributed an essay on Unitard Theory in the show’s accompanying book.

“We began talking about superheroes as a metaphor, and this idea how clothing can transform, or help maintain the same identity,” Bolton told WWD at an exclusive walk-through on Thursday. He added that the main theme of the exhibit is “how the superhero is the overarching metaphor for fashion, because both share this obsession with the body, identity and transformation.”

While the show is located in the same space as last year’s Poiret exhibit, its layout couldn’t be more different. Set designer Nathan Crowley, whose production credentials include movies like “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” served as a creative consultant on the exhibit. Its resulting design feels much like being inside a comic strip, with a dropped grid lit ceiling, glossy white floors, angular vignettes and large mirrors positioned at such angles that visitors can see the beginning and end of the show at all points. Crowley also designed the backdrops, which feature superhero symbols or panoramic Gotham skylines.

The first piece sets the tone for the entire exhibition: a screen print of Superman from Andy Warhol’s “Myths” series in 1981. “It’s the idea of high art co-opting something that is traditionally seen as a low form of artistic expression,” Bolton said.

Organized in vignettes under such themes as “The Graphic Body,” “The Patriotic Body,” “The Virile Body,” and “The Paradoxical Body,” the show intersperses actual superheroes and the meanings of their costumes with fashion designs of similar natures. For instance, “The Graphic Body” showcases a group of Superman-like costumes, including a Bernhard Willhelm dress and Moschino T-shirts that reinterpret the “S” chevron logo as a heart and the letter M. “We look at the idea of the branded body, and how the superhero is basically a branded body,” Bolton said.

Adjacent is a Clark Kent figure reflected in glass, which darkens to unveil a Superman character using a Pepper’s ghost technique. Nearby is a vignette dedicated to Spider-Man, with weblike dresses by Jean Paul Gaultier, Julien Macdonald and John Galliano. A group of Hulk-related garments, meanwhile, “look at the Hulk as a metaphor for male potency and adolescent metamorphosis,” Bolton said. They include a bright yellow Walter van Beirendonck jacket that is inflatable to resemble a ribbed torso.

No show would be complete without takes on the fetishism of Catwoman — featuring a Dolce & Gabbana black corset dress or a Thierry Mugler PVC catsuit — or Wonder Woman, who gave the curator a chance to play with designs featuring stars and stripes. Not surprisingly, Mugler seems to be frequently featured throughout the show, from his insect dresses to his armor-like suits, his motorcycle bustier with handlebars and side view mirrors, and an extravagant gown bringing together the head of a bird with an amphibian body and a fishlike scale bottom.

Giorgio Armani is underwriting the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 1, with additional support from Condé Nast. The show will kick off Monday with the Costume Institute gala benefit, featuring Armani as honorary chair and co-chairs George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour.

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